David Mamet's Sexual Perversity in Chicago and the Duck Variations Term Paper

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David Mamet

From the perspective of pure plot, David Mamet's 1974 play, Sexual Perversity in Chicago, is not exactly easy to summarize, although this difficulty is formally built in to the play, itself, which quite consciously rejects a standard narrative flow from one event to another for a cut-up collagistic style that rapidly jumps between scenes and events. Indeed, this sort of experimentation is hardly new in creative works, and was, in fact, a mainstay of modernist literature at the early part of the 20th century, but it can indeed still be jarring in the realm of theater, where one often tends to expect an emphasis on plot and narrative vision. Mamet's play, on the other hand, prefers to eschew these things in order to suggest something like the fractured nature of our own existences, and, rather than letting the plot hold the interest of the viewers, he realizes on his witty and exciting dialogue and on keeping each episode in the play motivating and entertaining in and of itself. Of course, this approach does place a lot of responsibility upon the viewer, who must therefore put together the play's jumbled plotline for him or herself, but the basic elements are fairly clear.

The main characters within the play itself are Danny (the protagonist), Deborah, and Bernie. The story largely revolves around the meeting that occurs between Danny and Deborah and the subsequent development of that interaction into a romantic relationship of sorts. The plot of the play is one of the most basic cliche's in all of story-telling, the "boy-meets-girl" storyline in which he meets and her and develops a relationship. This story, however, does not follow the typical trend of the romantic comedy in which said boy loses the girl only to win her back -- Danny and Deborah's relationship does develop -- they even move in together -- but they break up and never do get back together. In a sense, this story is a fractured bildungsroman about Danny losing his romantic innocence, but from another vantage point, it is also a powerful story about our basic alienation from other people. The cut-up style of the play with its wild jumps that occur without any real orientation mimic this alienation. Also, the play's fractured narrative mimics the fracture that occur constantly between characters, such as in Danny's difficult interactions with Joan and more obviously, his final break with Deborah. Much as Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman took on the myth of the so-called "American Dream," Mamet's play attacks the romantic ideal, especially in the wake of the sexual revolution, in which people often live together and break up instead of getting married and remaining monogamous.

Possibly this focus on alienation and the dissolution of a love relationship stems from Mamet's own experience as a youngster, in which his parents went through an acrimonious divorce. Indeed, one could easily imagine how this primal trauma might reverberate through his dramatic efforts and in this case might lead him to an ultimately pessimistic view of love relations. Indeed, given his background, it is difficult to imagine how Mamet could have reacted any other way to such traditional romantic narratives since the negative examples that he experienced in the guise of his parents as a youngster proved that not all dramatic tales have a happy ending. Moreover, this experience probably keyed Mamet in on the increasing trends towards the easy and free dissolution of love relationships that only a generation earlier would have been considered necessarily lifelong. Mamet's play was one of the first to gain him notoriety and, though, he wrote in 1974 it wasn't performed in a more widespreading until 1976. Quite commonly it is paired in its performance with another one of his early play's, the Duck Variations. Recently, a new version of the play opened on May 13, 2003, at the Comedy Theater in London, starring Matthew Perry of Friends ("Sexual Perversity in Chicago"). The play has again opened to fairly good reviews, and several sources have even praised Perry's performance as surprisingly subtle. The other famous version of Sexual Perversity in Chicago is the somewhat adapted film version starring Demi Moore, which was produced in the mid-1980s. The movie version basically stripped the Mamet play of everything that made it vibrant and interesting artistically and instead almost solely kept the plot and some of the anecdotes. Again, since plot was never the strong element of this play, the movie turned into a turgid romantic drama that was neither particularly interesting or powerful. The movie does at least however retain the final exciting moment of the play in an "open-ended climactic scene suggests that this state of affairs may change." ("About Last Night")

The Duck Variations is a play, which is more obviously indebted to Samuel Becket and involves two aged characters sitting on a bench and pontificating about the actions of various ducks and their behavior. The action here is more obviously philosophical and figurative at heart, but it is similar to Sexual Perversity in Chicago in that it is powered not by narrative, but in fact by plot. Also, much of the sadness in the Duck Variations is also mitigated by the absurdity of the characters in the play, the absurdity of the premise itself, and the wildness and ridiculousness of both their ideas and the dialogue itself. Indeed, in many ways it is the screenplay, or even the dialogue itself, which is the obvious main character in this particular work. The work considers many similar themes to Sexual Perversity in Chicago, including, most specifically the theme of our alienation from other people. Indeed, the behavior of the waterfowl is a fairly obvious metaphor for the study of humanity, and, in such absurd relief, does not speak particularly optimistically of human behavior. On the other hand, however, this play, despite its reduced scope and action, also reveals a deeper meaning, which is an alienation both from the truth and ourselves. As the characters in the play show, the Fact that we can only express ourselves in inherently imperfect language cuts us off from true knowledge, and we can also never really know the full depth of our subconscious selves and therefore our alienated from ourselves as well as others.

The Duck Variations also opened in 1976, and perhaps because of its more obvious comparison to certain earlier pieces of drama, such as Albee's Zoo Story and Beckett's work, as well as the fact that it does not deal with controversial and literally "sexy" material, it has never enjoyed quite the same amount of success as Sexual Perversity in Chicago, though it nonetheless helped to established Mamet and still retains a great deal of critical success. Indeed, as noted above, the play has often been performed along with Sexual Perversity in Chicago, and often are looked at as companion pieces of a sort, perhaps because both ultimately detail the interactions of two alienated men who end up alone. Indeed, one could almost imagine that, whereas Sexual Perversity in Chicago depicts two such alienated men and lonely men when they are young, The Duck Variations is simply a play about those same two characters once they have become old men.

Mamet's basic approach to creating his own uniquely styled art is to mix seemingly disparate elements, such as tragedy and comedy, high and low culture, sexuality and innocence, life and death, and abstract philosophy and overt social commentary. The basic attempt of his plays is to, though "experimental" theatrical methodologies, somehow critique the alienation of society and reflect its cracked porous social structure through a language that is similar cracked and distorted. By using such language, he allows his characters to reflect the destruction of the syntagmatic chain that we experience everyday as we are assaulted by the constant discourse of magazines, television, movies, and the radio:

The destabilizing movement depends upon a new way of looking at language -- specifically, a new way of finding contrary implications hidden inside a single word. If a word is not homogenous but contains contraries within itself, it can no longer be defined by the boundaries which separate it from other contrasting words.

Harland 240)

Mamet, too, is deeply concerned with the fractured features of language and the fact that, although language is inherently flawed and incapable of truly transmitting out meaning in any accurate or inherently true way, it is nonetheless, all that we are left with to use in the long run, and thus his characters keep on using this fractured lexicon, known as "Mametspeak" by his critics inorder to express themselves. But, indeed, the reality is that there is something in this as well, because Mametspeak does ultimately offer us a glimpse of both a reality and a meaning, even if it is not the meaning intended by the speaker. Or rather, to say it better, it offers a glimpse of many meaning, perhaps the one the speaker meant, but also all of the ways in…[continue]

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